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As far as I was concerned, the Totaldac led me into a completely analogue universe. With the Vincent/Patrick improvements microdynamics were brilliant and any vestiges of digital system brightness using either a Squeezebox Touch or Jadis JD2 transport were banished. I know of course that this is a very common reaction upon upgrading digital sources—until one hears better again—but I’m confident that at the present time this DAC comes closest to my D/A conversion ideal perhaps together only with the Vitus MP-D201.

Like other high-end products this DAC won’t perform miracles in each system. To benefit fully from its huge potential requires superior ancillaries. In one very real sense this could become Vincent Brien’s biggest hurdle – to market a product whose pricing far from reflects its true potential. Most of us could of course view €4.000 as quite dear already for a single-input DAC. This was clearly my issue too whilst assessing this unusual box. How to judge its probable standing in a product category which is currently exploding to completely have all of us lose track?

Here are some pointers. Compared to MSB’s entry-level offering, the Totaldac outclassed the Californian on every count - better resolution, more extended bandwidth, more impressive dynamics, more accurate tone, greater transparency. Of course the Totaldac lacks the futurist appearance, extensive settings (the DAC IV has an integrated volume controller) and connectivity. But on pure sonics it truly was a one-sided match. Here I must admit that MSB products always seemed overly clinical and polite to me - too pretty to be real. For a long time I believed this was a direct consequence of their clearly increased resolution and clarity where the MSB DAC IV is quite stunning. Even so it was still outclassed on those counts by the Totaldac. How MSB’s Signature or Diamond versions would hold up I don’t know. The Frenchie simply seems in very good shape to go right up against the top dogs.

One of its fortes is timbre. Here enhanced resolution shows fine details previously hidden or smeared into the background. This was completely obvious with the studio guitar album Passion, Grace and Fire. This is not the most famous reading of the Al di Meola, Paco de Lucia and John McLaughlin trio. In my opinion however it is the most demanding recording these exceptional guitarists have released. Most the time this album will deliver a relatively dry sound with far less tonal diversity than others. Yet each time I’ve upgraded my system in the past this recording shed degrees of this presumed dryness. With the Totaldac this album finally revealed such harmonic profusion that it became quite new, with venue reverberations clearly audible. The variety of microphones used by the three protagonists became quite confusing in fact. I finally realized that this studio construct is far from natural. In the past I viewed it as one of the trio’s most natural efforts. I was completely wrong. They definitely exploited various sound settings where each small variation of timbre now became pure delight to sound anything but dry.

When Patrick returned home with his final updates he’d adopted complete battery drive to enhance soundstaging and body. His version was objectively superior to Vincent’s but had a slight coloration close to Zanden's style. Even so his developments delivered stunningly gorgeous sonics. At this point I was not completely certain of my preference over the long haul. In my opinion batteries are not completely neutral and I also know Patrick’s priorities but in any case, either version outclassed the MSB.

Vincent and Patrick then got together and two days later Vincent informed me that he would send out a 4th now final evolution of the circuit wherein he had applied some of Patrick’s modifications to in his opinion come very close, albeit with a bit more neutrality and no additional costs or eventual battery disposal involved. This final development sounded promising and I was really keen to hear it. Its main modifications were related to the optimization of the buffer’s power supply and improved filtering.

Finally my expectations were fully satisfied. To my ears this last version enhanced the liquid nature of the music and further increased accuracy and detail. The sense of recorded space now was most intricately revealed across a wider and deeper soundstage. I believe these aspects are closely interlinked. Better detail enhances our perception of virtual space. In terms of harmonic density the final result was very close to fine vacuum tube devices but without their specific or unwanted colorations. Each instrument was simply well placed and positioned within surrounding recorded space.

Listening to Antonio Vivaldi's Violin Concerto in D Major [RV 208 – Viktoria Mullova & Il Giardino Armonico for Onyx Classics)] the soloist's dexterity in the cadenzas appeared plain and realistic. Too often these solos are a bit too scintillating. This time that type of electronic glaze seemed completely absent. The violins sounded as natural as the challenging harpsichord. The Totaldac delivered stunning tonal balance devoid of excess based upon its extended bandwidth. It merely gathered up the vivid character of Vivaldi's music, the tonal beauty and density of baroque instruments and a very accurate separation of each instrument with an exquisite sense of air and space and top-level detail.
On Dee Dee Bridgewater's live performance In Montreux [Polydor Jazz –1990] the acoustic context of Montreux’s casino is fairly captured. On the end of the first track the final "all of me" sports amazing echoes. This was the first time I heard this track with such clarity. Whenever "all of me" returns and Dee Dee Bridgewater scats very softly, the interaction between her voice and the piano was sublime. The microdynamic abilities of the Totaldac revealed the most subtle refinements in the pianist's phrasing and highlighted the complicity of the artistic interchange. This recording is not technically compelling yet the DAC’s resolution made me aware of its live ambient sound and double-bass harmonics I’d not imagined previously were even present. All this occurred without losing the liquidity which makes this music so involving in the first place.
I could further evoke the uncommon pleasure of listening to natural human voices with Ray Charles’ Genius loves Company. Vocals triggered real emotional responses in a completely solid-state system. Resolution combined with stunning fluidity to in my opinion equal very costly vacuum-tube challengers. When Norah Jones and Ray Charles sing together, each had undeniable presence and very precise separation. The expressiveness and sheer saturation of the midrange generally delivered by tubes seemed to extend on either side of the bandwidth.
Moving to more demanding recordings like opera had the Totaldac demonstrate the true measure of its capabilities. For my tastes listening to Violetta Valéry was never more musical heaven than now. In Fernando Previtali's version of La Traviata [Rome 1960 - RCA Living Stereo] on "Si ridesta in ciel l'aurora", the gradation of the choir's crescendo was absolutely compelling. The contrast at the beginning of the following "E strano, è strano!" scene with Anna Moffo alone on stage was amazing. It reflected the Rome Opera’s acoustics and portrayed the sensation of the stage now being quite empty. The soundstage was tremendous, separation of each voice and instrument first class and the quality of tone fantastic, with all fortes and tutti reproduced in an effortless manner. 

Conclusion: As you will have gathered, this assignment quite went beyond the usual review audition. I became involved in a hands-on development process and true audiophile adventure. I assessed no less than four different versions and believe the final one to be a great achievement of a giant killer dressed in Spartan DIY threads. This unusually basic appearance given its price will undoubtedly trigger the most interest for the OEM market where the converter board is highly competitive and first proposals are already being discussed. As a turn-key machine it should also prove attractive to audiophiles who prioritize sound over glitz, can live with just one S/PDIF input and don’t play files with native resolution exceeding 24/96. On sonics and for its price the Totaldac flatly is a most indecent proposal. It delivers performance and musicality on par with the top echelon of today’s digital machines.

Patrick's system

The socketry limit is somewhat relative when low-cost devices like M2Tech’s interface can convert to USB and when Apple’s recent move towards Thunderbolt technology suggests a phasing out of Firewire inputs in favor of the common Sony/Philips digital interface standard. On data density I personally view 24-bit/96kHz as a sufficiently large advance over 16/44.1. With ladder DACs it’s the precision of the ladder and the number of bits in the network which matter. Vincent Brient’s design is very stable and precise. The popular race for bits and word lengths is often little more than marketing noise rather than any real improvement in living-room dynamics. Those are mostly limited by dynamic compression in the recordings themselves and by very real limitations in partnering equipment and background din. Nevertheless those meaning to play back high-resolution downloads or DSD won’t be accommodated by today’s machine.

In my system the Totaldac delivered surprisingly more resolution that its design brief had me expect. I discovered many hidden details in familiar CDs whilst simultaneously enhancing musical coherence and my personal listening pleasure. At this stage I can’t conceive of what type of improvement some radically expensive über DAC might introduce beyond this. Aside from the basic cosmetics and feature scarcity I really can’t find any nits. For me that’s the highest compliment I could possibly make to one of the highest-performing converters I’ve yet come across.

Quality of packing: Good.
Reusability of packing: A few times.
Condition of each component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: No objections.
Human interactions: Very good and very honest.
Pricing: More than fair considering raw parts cost. It could a be a real bargain for those who look for the highest level of performance at a still affordable price.
Further comments: Unlike most digital gear which need extra break-in the Totaldac delivers its full potential quite immediately. Vincent Brient conducts direct sales and generally suggests a trial period against a guaranteed deposit. That’s a very interesting proposal for who intend to spend about € 4,000 for an accurate D/A converter.

Totaldac website